tag: The Media



4
May 2014

Today I Thunk: Political Promises

“Today I Thunk”… kind of like “Thought For Today” but with less gravitas.

Political PromisesSo as campaigning continues in the local and European elections, I am struck by just how hollow the claims of the candidates sound. We have reached a point where I basically assume a politician is lying whenever their lips are moving. Or at best, they are too damn stupid to understand just how stupid they sound. Either they are schemers with a hidden agenda, or they are careerists without the intelligence to hide their agenda of pure self-interest. And the problem, of course, is that politics has become a job without any consequences for failure*.

Which is kind of crazy given that it’s actually a pretty important job. Indeed, with the exception of Hollywood film producer and premiership referee, there is surely no other job where you can so consistently demonstrate incompetence and yet face no negative consequences aside from transient public criticism.

So here’s an idea… when politicians are campaigning for our vote, they should be obliged to sign a contract with the electorate. This contract would outline the exact terms by which their party would measure success if elected.

So, for example, they might state that unemployment would be below a certain percentage after their first term in power. Or that the number of people classified as being in poverty would be below a certain number. There are all manner of metrics that can (and should) be developed to quantify the success (or failure) of a government.

Then, at the end of the term in office, if they have not succeeded in keeping a significant proportion – say 75%? – of their promises, those individuals are legally prevented from (a) standing in the next election, and (b) drawing any pension from that term of office.

If nothing else, this will result in political parties being forced to openly admit they’re unwilling to make ambitious promises. It will demonstrate the paucity of their belief in their own intentions. It will bring some much needed “consequence” to their almost inevitable failure. And – over time – it may even result in a better class of politicians – people willing to make ambitious promises that they actually intend to keep.

* Voltaire wrote that “the ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination” and – as awful as this may sound – I think there may be something very wise in his satirical comment. We desperately need some form of negative consequence for political failure (and no, getting voted out of office with a hefty pension and a future full of non-executive directorships hardly qualifies).

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


9
Jan 2014

The Right’s not what it seems either

Just as our notions of The Left have shifted dramatically in the past forty years, a story caught my eye today that illustrates how The Right (and I’m talking here about the mainstream right) has made a shift of its own. The story is ably summarised by the headline: Firefighters In Tears As 10 Stations Close In London.

Few stories so perfectly demonstrate the Thatcherite transformation of the British Conservative Party. A transformation that itself helped galvanise a terrible global trend. Not so long ago, the Tory Party stood for two things… money and tradition. And while “money” would often win out – it did lose a surprising number of battles and certainly didn’t get things all its own way.

Then Thatcher came in and ripped “tradition” out of the Tories. Now it’s all money.

I’m not saying the Old Tories were a better breed of economic oppressor (in many ways they weren’t) but they were a very different breed. Yet the British media has allowed them to retain the appearance of a party that stands for “tradition”. Just as the media still calls Labour “left wing”.

This matters of course, because it permits people to be hoodwinked into supporting politicians they otherwise wouldn’t. The Conservative Party, pre-Thatcher, would never have expedited the closure of London’s oldest Fire Station – a grand old institution that served the city through the Blitz and more – and then added insult to injury by allowing it to be replaced by something so crass as “a block of luxury flats”. There are people out there who still vote for Boris Johnson and his ilk because they represent “the Britain of old”, something to be cherished, steeped in a history of True Greatness. Whether you agree with that view of British history or not is irrelevant, the point is – the modern Tory Party don’t. And lots of people still vote for them because they hide that fact.

Boris Johnson
Talk of budgetary constraints would have been seen as vaguely treasonous to the Conservative Party of fifty years ago. The survival of that fire station (and others like it) would be considered a top priority to those who take genuine pride in the history and traditions of Britain. A group of people that demonstrably does not include Boris Johnson, David Cameron or George Osborne.

So yeah, British friends… vote for the tories if you’re already very rich. That’s fair enough, they’re on your side. But don’t vote for them because they’re the party of your grandad who fought in the war. They really aren’t any more.

(and neither are that UKIP bunch)

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


3
Apr 2013

The curious case of Inigo Wilson

This post has been brewing for about a month now. Ever since I received a letter from Mr. Inigo Wilson at the end of February asking that I remove a post from this blog. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to say about it or how I wanted to say it, but I knew I wanted to say something.

First, some background…

Way back in 2006, Tory blogger Inigo Wison wrote a piece at ConservativeHome entitled Inigo Wilson: A Lefty Lexicon. In response to this piece, Mr. Wilson was suspended from his job at telecoms firm, Orange. Although he was later reinstated, he briefly became a talking point within the blogosphere. The vast majority of people – whether they agreed with Wilson’s “Lefty Lexicon” or not – were critical of the actions of the corporation. I myself emailed the PR department of Orange to suggest that while I felt his article was wrong-headed and borderline racist, he should nonetheless be permitted to express his political views on a website completely unconnected with his employer.

Yes, I found his article pretty dreadful, but I nonetheless defended his right to publish it without censure from his employers.

However, I also wrote a piece on this blog with the title, “Inigo Wilson: thick as pigshit”. Why? Well, because anyone writing such garbage under their own (very distinctive) name while working as “spokesperson for community affairs” for a major corporation would have to be as thick as pigshit if they didn’t expect repercussions.

Palestinians – archetype ‘victims’ no matter how many teenagers they murder in bars and fast food outlets. Never responsible for anything they do – or done in their name – because of ‘root causes’ or ‘legitimate grievances’.

Inigo Wilson | A Lefty Lexicon

In my piece, I was quite unequivocal in my condemnation of Orange (and, as I say, I emailed them to say so). However, I was also quite forthright in my condemnation of Wilson. I found his piece pretty obnoxious and I found his suspension from work predictable. Anyone who has ever worked in the corporate world (as have I) and who possesses an IQ higher than that of a brain-damaged bumble-bee, would understand the consequences of publishing such an article while holding the position of “spokesperson for community affairs”. If I read a news story about someone being beaten up by a gang, I will feel dismayed at the action of that gang. However, when I read the next paragraph and discover that the victim was walking through the Broadwater Farm Estate at midnight wearing Arsenal colours and singing “One-nil to the Arsenal” at the top of his lungs…? Well, my dismay at the actions of the gang is not lessened in any way; but nor do I think it wrong of me if the phrase “what a fricking idiot!” springs unbidden to my mind.

No, the attack is not justified. But it is predictable. Likewise with Wilson’s suspension. Which is the point I made in my article… albeit rather forcefully.

Islamophobic – anyone who objects to having their transport blown up on the way to work.

Inigo Wilson | A Lefty Lexicon

Anyway, thanks to my ‘Mad SEO Skillz’(tm) my post appeared at the top of google results for “Inigo Wilson”. Any time someone typed “Inigo Wilson” into google, they were greeted by the phrase “Inigo Wilson – thick as pigshit” in bright blue bold letters at the top of the page. I wasn’t actually aware of this, never having recourse to type “Inigo Wilson” into a search engine, but clearly Mr. Wilson has been doing a little Egosurfing over the years (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t at one time or another?) and was less than happy at the results.

Which is why at the end of February I received a registered letter from Inigo Wilson (why he didn’t just email me, I don’t know) requesting I remove the “offensive” post.

Back to the present…

It goes without saying that my first reaction to the letter was “over my dead body!” The article that provoked Wilson’s suspension (and the condemnation of about half the blogosphere) has not been removed despite – I am quite certain – numerous requests to do so. It’s still there for all to see. If Wilson refuses to take down something he wrote that offended a whole bunch of people, why should I – at his behest – take down something I wrote because it offended one or two? I suspect that any request to remove “A Lefty Lexicon” would be met with faux-hysterical shrieks of “left-wing censorship!!” and the more hyperbolic of Wilson’s advocates would doubtlessly use the term “Stalinist”.

So yes, my first reaction to the letter was one of irritation. Here’s a guy who under the cloak of “humorous satire” labelled all Palestinians, “murderers” and equated Islam with terrorism. But he gets his knickers in a twist when someone calls him thick. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it, Inigo. Why the hell should your capacity for offence trump anyone else’s? And why did you write such an article if you felt that people had some sort of right not to be offended? We’re all hypocrites from time to time, but this was particularly brazen.

But then I went back and re-read my piece, and you know what? I wasn’t impressed with it. It had been dashed off in a few minutes and not only wasn’t it well-written, it actually came across as mean-spirited. Uncharacteristically so for me (in my view). So after some hmming and hahing, I decided to remove the post from The Quiet Road. I just wasn’t proud of it, even if I still completely agreed with the sentiment. And just because I felt that Wilson’s original article was mean-spirited doesn’t absolve me of the same offence. On top of that, and despite my best efforts to avoid it, I did feel kind of bad for the guy. I wouldn’t be too happy to see my name followed by “thick as pigshit” pop up every time anyone googled me. My opinion about Wilson’s article and the whole farrago surrounding its publication haven’t changed, but I’m not comfortable hanging a digital millstone around his neck like that.

At the same time though, I didn’t feel comfortable just taking it down and saying nothing. Letting it disappear down the memory hole. As I say, Wilson has felt no compulsion to remove an article that he knows offended many people (I’m not personally offended by it, incidentally… I tend not to take offence at such things… but I do see how others could be. So in that sense, it’s definitely “an offensive” article). Also, by revisiting the whole thing I ended up re-reading not only his original article, but several others spawned by the brouhaha. For example, there’s the celebratory post at ConservativeHome upon Wilson’s reinstatement at Orange. It concludes with the sentence:

I understand that emails from supporters of Inigo outnumbered emails against him by more than five-to-one… a real victory for the conservative blogopsphere and a real defeat for those Muslim extremists who want to close down debate.

ConservativeHome | Inigo Wilson reinstated

First up, describing it as “a real victory for the conservative blogopsphere” is plain nonsense. I know at least two bloggers, excluding myself, who would be considered “of the left” by conservatives and who emailed Orange to support Wilson’s right to publish his article despite their distaste for it. I doubt we were the only three. But heaven forbid we should expect balance or fair-mindedness from such a partisan source. Also, the notion that his suspension was the result of “Muslim extremists who want to close down debate” is utter twaddle of the highest order. It’s a statement made either by someone who hasn’t the faintest idea how corporate PR works, or who does know how corporate PR works but wants to take a cheap shot at Muslims. I suspect it’s the latter because that’s the kind of nastiness one expects from Tories.

And when I re-read Inigo Wilson: A Lefty Lexicon, I found myself irritated by it all over again. Not only isn’t it the slightest bit funny, it’s badly researched, badly written and – as I say – pretty mean-spirited. So while Mr. Wilson will now be spared the “thick as pigshit” soubriquet, his article does not deserve a free ride. Let’s take a look at it…

Inigo Wilson: A Lefty Lexicon

The article begins with several paragraphs decrying what he views as a “curious Lefty-inspired patois”. By this he means the vague, euphemistic language of spin that has utterly engulfed political and corporate communication. This isn’t – of course – “Lefty-inspired” at all, but aside from that, I’m in complete agreement with his initial sentiment. The language of “spin” does indeed damage our cultural discourse and should be resisted. But Wilson’s notion that the root of such deliberate obfuscation can be found in left-wing, post-modern academia displays a breath-taking ignorance of the history of propaganda. For that is what this is; make no mistake; it’s propaganda. Over the years the actual techniques change as the culture evolves and the expectations of the audience shifts, so the specifics of the “patois” shift and mutate, but it’s something that’s been going on for years before post-modernism came on the scene.

I’m pretty sure there’s something about it in Machiavelli’s The Prince – for example – though don’t hold me to that as it’s almost two decades since I read it. However, it’s definitely addressed in Gustave Le Bon’s hugely influential text, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (published in 1895… a little while before those dastardly post-modern academics gained such a stranglehold on our civilisation). Le Bon’s trenchant views on the subject of white-European racial supremacy would probably exclude him from the kind of ‘Lefty academia’ that Wilson considers so insidious. Le Bon’s views were dissected and critiqued by Freud when Uncle Siggy wrote on the subject of Mass Psychology. But Edward Bernays was less discerning (as was Adolf Hitler who incorporated a number of Le Bon’s ideas into Mein Kampf).

Bernays is seen as the father of “spin”, and was about as far from being a “Lefty” as it’s possible to get. His books provided the template for the modern public relations industry which is actually where this tendency towards vague language and obfuscation originates in the modern era. Remember his “torches of freedom“? Was there ever a more insidious use of spin?

George Orwell’s glorious “Politics and the English Language” is an early example of criticism of this kind of euphemistic language. In reality, both left and right wings are equally capable of twisting language for political purposes. Equally capable and equally guilty. However, I do find it interesting that the “manual” on how to do it emerged from The Right, and the first well-known attack on it comes from The Left. Precisely the opposite of Wilson’s ill-researched analysis (though anyone who – with a straight face – describes the Blair government as “left wing” probably can’t be trusted when it comes to politics).

In fact, before I go any further, let’s clarify something about modern politics (I’m talking here about western liberal democracies here). There is no longer any mainstream left. It has completely disappeared. That’s not hyperbole. The modern political spectrum has been narrowed to such an extent that it now extends from the “pretty dodgy right wing” all the way to the “centre right”. The Blair government didn’t advocate a single genuinely left wing policy… they weren’t quite as bad as the previous and subsequent Tory governments, that’s true, but the attempts to redistribute wealth from top to bottom were half-hearted tokenism at best. Where were the wholesale nationalisations and massive increases in wealth taxation? Those are genuine left-wing policies, and anyone who felt the Blair / Brown administrations implemented them are just plain wrong.
Modern political spectrum
Modern politics has completely integrated the capitalist conservative model. Every mainstream political party in northern Europe and the United States is a right wing party. Every single one. Southern Europe has seen a (very recent) resurgence in socialist parties in response to the financial crisis. But even there, none of them have actually gained power and those that came close (I’m thinking specifically of Syriza in Greece) still don’t quite make it all the way around to “Socialism” on that graphic… though they are at least pushing that direction.

Personally, I don’t locate myself on that graphic. Anarcho-syndicalism with technocratic leanings doesn’t really fit into the standard left-right model though I obviously find far more allies on the red side of the picture than I do on the blue. But when you have “Labour” parties (in the UK and Ireland) aggressively pushing free-market policies of privatisation, they can no longer be described as “of the left”. To do so merely betrays a lack of imagination, a complete ignorance of political philosophy and a refusal to update one’s belief system in the face of new evidence. It’s essentially a faith-based position.

So Wilson’s introductory section to his Lefty Lexicon is not only badly researched when it ascribes the politically motivated use of obfuscation to “the left”, it also completely fails to acknowledge the realities of the modern political landscape. It is conservatism at its most pure – steeped in the mythology of a non-existent past and seasoned with a generous dash of wish-fulfilment.

And it gets no better. The actual lexicon is – I think – supposed to be funny though I can’t see how it would raise even a smile in anyone other than a blindly partisan conservative. It even finds itself guilty of the very thing it’s supposed to be lampooning – the political twisting of language. For example, we have:

Fascism/Nazism – apparently the ‘opposite’ of Socialism – despite sharing party members, ideology and – in National Socialism – the name.

Inigo Wilson | A Lefty Lexicon

The clear implication of this entry is that ‘National Socialism’ is somehow connected with ‘Socialism’ because of “the name”. Somehow I doubt this is coming from a man who honestly believes ‘The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ is genuinely ‘democratic’. But look… it’s part of the name! That must mean something, right? Or does it only mean something when it’s politically convenient? Talk about spin.

Wilson’s piece does contain some valid criticism of the more nonsensical recent examples of vague political language and management-speak. The entries on ‘Consultation’, ‘In partnership with’, ‘Issues around’ and ‘Key’ (amongst others) make legitimate if obvious points. However, he also pours scorn on “Green issues”, the notion of institutional racism and even “human rights”. This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Praising the United States for being the “world’s most productive economy” is akin to praising the former Soviet Union for having the world’s most productive biological weapons facilities. If you honestly think that converting the world’s natural resources into cheap consumer garbage destined for landfill constitutes “productivity” then it might be time to reassess your use of that word.

In conclusion

So yeah. I removed the original blog post as per Mr. Wilson’s request. It wasn’t a good piece. It was slightly nasty, which really isn’t how I want to be. And for that, I’m genuinely sorry (I wouldn’t have removed it if I wasn’t sorry, so you can take that apology to the bank). However, it wasn’t half as bad as the piece that started all this. I wanted to address that piece as well as draw attention to the fact that I’ve removed an article from my blog – something I don’t like to do without explanation (especially if it has generated a comment thread). And that’s all I have to say on the subject for now.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


25
Feb 2013

Comparative losses to Irish exchequer

Earlier this month, a chap called Andrew Fisher posted a diagram to Facebook demonstrating the relative losses to the UK treasury produced by tax evasion / avoidance and benefit fraud.

Rather shamelessly, I decided to nick the idea wholesale and use it to illustrate the same point in an Irish context. The Irish government, however, makes the exercise far more difficult than their UK counterparts. They do not publish any estimates of unclaimed social welfare entitlements. Nor do they publish any estimates of income lost through tax evasion / avoidance. However, they do publish estimates of social welfare fraud. This fact alone is extremely revealing and seems to answer the question… is our priority to balance the books? Or to demonise the poor?

However, an international organisation called the Tax Justice Network does publish a country-by-country estimate of revenue lost to tax evasion / avoidance. So that figure is available despite the best efforts of the Irish government to hide it from us. The amount saved in unclaimed payments, however, is not – to the best of my knowledge – available anywhere. If someone has a reliable source for this figure, then please do let me know in the comments.

So the next time you hear a government minister lambast welfare fraud, or see a tabloid headline shrieking about “benefit cheats”… well, the diagram speaks for itself.

Priorities

Total social welfare budget: €19.797 billion
Estimate of “fraud and error”: 3.4%
(average of lower and upper estimates – 2.4% and 4.4%)
Proportion of “fraud and error” attributed to fraud: 31%
Proportion of “fraud and error” attributed to error: 69%

Tackling Social Welfare Fraud (an Irish government publication)

The estimate by the Tax Justice Network of amount lost in tax evasion / avoidance is reported in the Irish Examiner.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


25
Feb 2013

Oscar night on The Quiet Road

Welcome to my much-anticipated live-blog of tonight’s Oscar ceremony. Sadly, due to a scheduling conflict (who knew the Oscars were today!?) it was necessary to write the post last week. But thanks to the wonders of WordPress, it will be automatically published on Oscar night. So, in a sense, this is better than a live-blog as it’s actually ahead of its time. I also made sure to include at least 10% more than the minimum number of exclamation points mandated by the Academy.

And so to the red carpet where lovely celebrities wearing expensive clothes are smiling and having their picture taken. Wheee! What fun! Don’t they look lovely!

There’s whats-her-name! Sporting a beautiful full-length gown by that designer everyone’s talking about. And look who it is by her side… why it’s that famous actor in that film about things blowing up. Good for them! They look both rich and happy. Yay!

Because of its tremendous solemnity, death is the light in which great passions, both good and bad, become transparent, no longer limited by outward appearances.

Søren Kierkegaard

And there’s that guy off the telly. Doesn’t he look dashing in that tuxedo. And what rugged stubble he has. Good for him.

Ooooh… and that actress who always wears daring outfits is wearing a daring outfit. The skirt is split right to the thigh and the word “strapless” will feature prominently in the photo captions tomorrow. Good for her. And look who it is by her side… why it’s that famous actor in that film about things blowing up. Good for them! They look both rich and happy. Yay!

There’s a pop star. Wooo! A pop star.

Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.

Søren Kierkegaard

Ha ha ha! The famous actor made a mildly witty remark to one of the reporters holding a microphone in front of his face. Chortle.

Uh-oh, there’s Hollywood bad-boy whats-his-name! Wherever he goes, controversy is never far behind. Look! Look! He’s wearing brightly coloured unmatched socks… what did I tell you… controversy!

Winners and losers

Of course, everyone’s a winner tonight. There are no losers. Just being nominated… heck, just being invited… makes you a winner in the eyes of this live-blogger.

And now, here’s your host… that dude! Look at him! He’s funny. Gosh! Did he really say that!? Talk about edgy. Ha ha! It’s funny because it’s true! Zing!

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

Søren Kierkegaard

And now the Oscar for best use of hand-held cameras in a fight scene involving supporting actors… that woman from the telly pauses dramatically before opening the envelope. And the Oscar goes to… well, no surprises there. Anyone who saw that film was surely expecting it.

Oooh, a song. From a film. Lovely. Just lovely.

And now the Oscar for best explosion in a period drama. Impossible to call. Critics agree that all five explosions are amongst the best we’ve ever seen. And the Oscar goes to… well, I never! I know some people will say that’s sheer tokenism… positive discrimination at work… but I thought it was a worthy winner. And an explosion we’ll be seeing again and again for years to come.

Listen to the cry of a woman in labour at the hour of giving birth – look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.

Søren Kierkegaard

And it’s another song. By a different singer. Oooh… and some dancers too. Lovely. Just lovely.

And now the Oscar for best cameo appearance by an animated parrot. And the Oscar goes to… well, well, well… that makes it three Oscars in five years. And you know what? It’s absolutely deserved. Well done.

Ouch! Did the host really say that!? Zing!

The mood turns a bit more serious now… a short black-and-white montage of all the much-loved Hollywood personalities who have put on weight this year. Accompanied by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. There’s hardly a dry eye in the house.

If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe; but precisely because I cannot do this, I must believe.

Søren Kierkegaard

Not to worry though… everyone’s soon laughing again as the Oscar for best use of product placement in a romantic comedy features some truly hilarious moments. No surprises who wins though!

And now, one of the most highly anticipated moments of the night as the Academy awards the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Science Fiction Costume Design. Ha ha! A funny anecdote from the actor with the stubble introducing the award. “This woman’s costumes in that 1964 classic were what inspired me to become an actor!!” You can almost hear the exclamation points! And there she is! Old yet sprightly. Well done her!

Zowie! Did the host really say that!? I bet he’ll get a telling-off in the tabloids tomorrow!

Once you label me you negate me.

Søren Kierkegaard

And now, the one we’ve all been waiting for… Best Film. For weeks now, absolutely everyone has been debating which film was the best. And now we’ll finally know! Lots of people will be pretty darn sheepish when they discover the film they said was the best turns out to not be the best. That actually, there was a better one than the one they said was the best. Though for some, this moment will be one of ecstatic vindication as they discover they were right all along. That the film they said was the best film, actually was the best film.

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

Søren Kierkegaard

And the winner is…

you.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


11
Jan 2013

The two ‘David B’s

This week, quite rightly, the media has been buzzing with news of the return of David Bowie. His first new material in a decade was released, quite unexpectedly, on Tuesday; his 66th birthday. The song – Where Are We Now? – is a lovely, melancholy meditation on lost youth. Filled with references to Berlin, where Bowie himself spent several years in the 1970s, it was produced by Tony Visconti who – along with Bowie and Brian Eno – formed the Holy Trinity responsible for the three late-70s albums that (in my personal opinion) represent the pinnacle of Bowie’s creative output. I know that sounds like I’m saying he “peaked” with “Heroes”, Low and Lodger and then went into decline. But that’s not how I see it. Yes, there was something of a trough in the 1980s, but 1.Outside in the mid-90s saw him once again climb creative heights rarely visited by others and of the four 90s / early noughties albums that followed, only Hours was less than brilliant (both Earthling and Heathen are grossly underrated and Reality has some stonking songs on it though you might argue there’s some filler there too).

The new single is to be followed by an album in March (called The Next Day) which I am eagerly anticipating. And while well-publicised health problems suggest he may not tour the new songs, we can still hope against hope. Right? As well as the inevitable cooing from die-hard fans (of which I am one and for which I make no apology) there have been other responses. Thanks to the internet, you can read the views of the cynics and the compulsive denigrators just as easily as the views of the die-hard fans. Which is fine. If people genuinely don’t like Bowie, or genuinely find the new song lacking in some way then they are just as entitled to express that opinion as people like myself who are excited about it. Mind you, a lot of the criticism I’ve encountered smacks somewhat of deliberate contrarianism. It comes from the same sort of people who tell you The Beatles never wrote a good tune, Citizen Kane is overrated and insist they don’t understand the phrase “best thing since sliced bread” because frankly sliced bread is shit.

And you know what, those folk are also just as entitled to express their opinion. I find it a little sad that people actively seek the sensation of jadedness – something I seem to spend a whole lot of time battling – but I don’t have to live their lives so let them at it… I’m not looking for repressive legislation on the matter.

Anyway, here’s the new single (along with the odd video). If you’ve not already heard it, I hope you like it as much as I do. I found myself humming it after just one listen and yet I’d still describe it as “a grower” because I’m enjoying it more and more with each new hearing.

The other David B

In my personal musical universe there’s probably only one other person who rivals David Bowie for the top spot (luckily my musical universe is polytheistic in nature, so they don’t need to fight it out). And that’s David Byrne. Like Bowie, David Byrne’s finest hour was quite a while ago – and perhaps not at all coincidentally – also involved Brian Eno. I’m speaking of course about Remain In Light, the greatest album ever recorded.

Also like Bowie, however, that didn’t represent a “peak” from which there was only a long decline ahead. No, like Bowie’s Low, Remain In Light was simply the tallest tree in a forest of redwoods. His career since Talking Heads has been generally overlooked by the mainstream (with the occasional exception… his Oscar for The Last Emperor soundtrack being one such exception) but is no less because of it. So when I read a review of last year’s Love This Giant (a collaboration with St. Vincent) that described the album as “a return to form” I was genuinely mystified. You can’t return to something you never left, and Byrne has been “on form” pretty much since 1977. Whether it was his work with Talking Heads, his solo stuff, his collaborations (with Eno, Fat Boy Slim, St. Vincent and others) or his many books, films and installations; Byrne has consistently brought joy, light, wonder and a great rhythm section to my life.

Love This Giant is another wonderful record. The heavy use of “heavy brass” gives it quite a distinctive sound, setting it apart from most of his other work (excluding, of course, his album of brass band compositions – Music For The Knee Plays). In fact it contains a song (I Should Watch TV) that rocketed straight into my top 10 Byrne tracks and which I listen to regularly. How pleasing, therefore, that it appears on the short live concert by Byrne and St. Vincent that’s just been released by NPR. I recommend the entire gig as it showcases a genuinely wonderful album while throwing in a couple of older tracks. But if you’ve only got a few minutes, then skip ahead to 24:40 and listen to the glorious I Should Watch TV.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Reviews » Music reviews


6
Jan 2013

Irish newspapers demand ridicule

Thanks to a tax-regime designed to encourage international investment (some would suggest “exploitation” as a more appropriate word), Ireland has successfully positioned itself as one of the world’s leading locations for high-tech and new media corporations. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter (and many others) have located their European or non-US headquarters in Ireland. The nation has derived some economic benefit from this, primarily with the provision of several thousand well-paid jobs, but less than might be imagined (thanks to that aforementioned policy of low corporate taxation).

Nonetheless, despite the emergence of Ireland as a major internet hub, there are large sections of society who have yet to fully enter the digital age. Most notably of course, our political establishment, but also certain commercial organisations that should really know better (I don’t expect our political establishment to know better because – quite frankly – I don’t have an awful lot of faith in the intellectual ability of most who inhabit it).

Fine Gael: Searching for the Off switchThis ignorance of things digital within the political sphere was wonderfully illustrated on a recent news report on RTÉ news. It concerned the government announcement of an investigation into the abuse of social media (online bullying – or “trolling” as it was mistakenly called). This follows at least three recent suicides in Ireland which have been linked – either directly or indirectly – to online bullying. While those affected by these tragic deaths have my deepest sympathies, I was extremely uneasy when a member of the government appeared on the news to suggest a possible crackdown on online bullying by dictating how social media should be used in Ireland. His announcement that he would personally chair the committee which would recommend new “social media legislation” was accompanied by some stock footage of him at his computer. There he sat, staring at this thing on his desk as though it were an unexploded bomb, tentatively prodding the keyboard with a single finger. And I thought, so this is the guy the Irish government have chosen to set policy in the area of new media… no wonder the place is a fecking disaster area.

But then a few days ago, it emerged that the Irish government is positively ahead of the times when compared to the Irish newspaper industry (sorry for the bad pun, but it was impossible to resist).

All Your Links Are Belong To Us

Simon McGarr is a Dublin-based solicitor. His clients include Women’s Aid, a registered charity dealing with the issue of domestic violence against women. National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) is an organisation which represents pretty much every newspaper in the country (national and regional). Recently, Women’s Aid was mentioned favourably in several newspaper articles (both online and in print). And as you would expect, they posted links to those online articles on their website. As you probably wouldn’t expect, however, they then received a demand from NNI that they pay a fee for each link to a newspaper website. Read Simon McGarr’s blogpost on this issue.

Now, you might think it perfectly reasonable that NNI should protect the right of their members to assert copyright over whatever content they publish. And you’d be correct. Everything I write on this blog is “copyright me (followed by dates)”. Though, as I mention on the About Me page, I’m generally more than happy to be cited in part (or even in full) so long as the citation is credited. Indeed, this is how online discourse tends to work and you’ll find this blog littered with extracts from newspaper articles, blogs and books along with a credit (and a link to the original source if it’s on the web). I know Irish copyright law doesn’t have an explicit “fair use” clause, but frankly I consider “fair use” to be an intellectual principle that transcends national laws and which – were we to lose it – would have an actively damaging effect on society as a whole (as well as pretty much bringing academia to an end).

All the same, I can just about accept the argument that permission should be sought prior to quoting someone else’s work. The argument is wrong, let me point out, and I won’t be bound by it unless you can demonstrate why it’s right… but nor will I think you’re completely insane if you attempt to forward it. However, that’s not the position of the NNI. No, their position is somewhat different. And it is completely insane.

The NNI is asserting that hyperlinks are themselves covered by copyright. That is; if I simply link to an article online without prior permission (like this) I have breached the copyright of the site being linked to (in this case The Irish Times). The NNI suggests that I now owe The Irish Times €300 (their cost for between 1 and 5 links). Although I have linked to more than five Irish Times articles during the lifetime of this blog, so I actually owe quite a bit more (€1,350 for between 26 and 50 links). And that’s an annual fee, let me point out, for a licence to link to those articles.

The Daily NewsNow, the NNI very graciously inform us that they are prepared to waive this licence fee if the links are “for personal use”. But that doesn’t alter their claim that they are legally entitled to such payment, and doesn’t prevent them from withdrawing the waiver on a whim should they choose to do so. They are effectively saying to bloggers and users of other social media platforms that they may, at their discretion and on a date of their choosing, take legal action to recoup money from anyone who has ever linked to one of their articles.

Foot shooting and rampant extortion

Not only is this patently absurd, not only does it completely violate the spirit of the web, but it displays a quite stunning self-destructive tendency. Most online newspapers generate income from advertising. Therefore, it is entirely in their interest to maximise traffic to their site. If a website is republishing entire articles, then I understand the NNI and individual newspapers may lose traffic and as a result lose money. So it is understandable that they should seek to prevent this happening. However, by asserting that the simple act of linking to a newspaper article potentially places a person under threat of future legal action, they provide a massive disincentive to link to them. Given that those links are generating traffic, and therefore revenue, for newspapers; the NNI appears to be insisting that the online community act to reduce the revenue of their members, under threat of legal action and/or a hefty fee.

And no, their claim that they voluntarily waive the fee for personal websites is not as reassuring as they clearly think, as it still suggests that some future change in policy could land bloggers in their debt. Part of me wants to remove all links to Irish newspapers from this blog and begin actively campaigning that other bloggers and users of social media do the same. Get a big enough snowball rolling and I suspect the online community could significantly reduce traffic to newspaper websites. However, such a link boycott would also mean engaging the NNI on their own terms rather than dismissing their claim as the absurd nonsense it actually represents.

Personally I can’t exactly afford a protracted court case, but I would love the NNI to demand payment from this blog for the many links I have made to Irish newspapers. Because – as I pointed out at the start of this article – they clearly don’t have a robust understanding of how the web works. If they did, they would realise their position – if taken seriously – effectively means that the majority of, if not all, Irish newspapers are engaged in extortion.

“How so?” you ask. Well, it’s pretty simple really. Like almost every online newspaper on the planet, Irish newspapers place social media buttons on each of their articles. They actively invite you to click these buttons. However, not a single one of them includes a legal disclaimer to the effect that clicking on these buttons creates a copyright-protected link for which the reader may be charged a substantial fee. Even if that fee is waived, the NNI is insisting that a person clicking the “Facebook Like” button on an article in the Irish Times has placed themselves in debt to the newspaper and it is only the discretion of the NNI that prevents this debt being recouped.

I’m no lawyer, and perhaps “extortion” is not the correct legal term, but I’m pretty certain that tricking someone into debt by inviting them to perform an action without first telling them it incurs a charge, is probably illegal (yes, even in Ireland, where we seem to have made a national sport out of tricking the populace into paying large amounts of money to private corporations).

It seems to me that the NNI really hasn’t the faintest idea what it’s doing and is running the risk of damaging the very industry it seeks to protect. It is providing us with a significant incentive to stop linking to Irish newspapers – actively driving down traffic and revenue for their members – while at the same time is stating a legal position which appears to place their own members very much on the wrong side of the law.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


13
Nov 2012

An alternative plan

It has become a mantra of the mainstream here in Ireland… “it’s all very well to criticise”, they say, “but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

You hear it trotted out regularly by government politicians in the news and on current affairs programmes. Usually in response to a challenge from one of the small cohort of usual suspects from the Irish Left. It goes like this:

Clare Daly

Socialist TD, Clare Daly:
A saner voice than most, but still not sane enough

Perhaps in a Dáil (parliamentary) question, or maybe from behind the desk on the Vincent Browne show, Joe Higgins or Clare Daly or someone from Sinn Féin* will remind a minister of the basic injustice of the bank guarantee strangling this country.

The minister will then respond thus: he or she will acknowledge that mistakes have been made. There will be a rueful reminder of the complete mess they’ve inherited from the last lot. The phrase “to an extent our hands are tied with regards to…” will be used. We will be reminded that nobody wants to be in the current situation and that our politicians certainly don’t want to make the tough decisions they’re being forced to make. But those tough decisions do have to be made for the good of the country. And remember, to an extent our hands are tied…

The minister will then finish with the well worn coup de grâce. “Well”, he or she will announce with feigned gravitas, “it’s all very well to criticise, but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

And with that, the debate in the media is won. That same discussion has been happening on our screens for the past two years, and those on The Left don’t appear to understand that every time it happens, they lose the argument yet again. And losing the same argument over and over, every night on TV for two years, makes you look like a bad bet when it comes to choosing who to run the country.

Now, some of you might be wondering why “I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan” wins the argument. Why don’t The Left just propose an alternative plan then? After all, if they can’t do that, then they probably don’t merit your vote. Except it’s not quite that simple. See the challenge is not simply to propose an alternative plan, it’s to propose an alternative plan that can be coherently communicated to a mass audience in approximately two minutes. As Chomsky pointed out (and whatever you think of Chomsky, he’s right about this) complex or radical ideas can almost never be coherently explained to a mass audience in a soundbite. Especially if those ideas challenge pre-existing beliefs about the world.

That’s one theory why The Left is losing the media debate right now – losing the debate despite a growing groundswell of discontent with the government. Basically they do possess an alternative plan, but because it involves massive structural changes to the way Irish society works, it can’t be conveyed quickly without sounding wild or risky or just plain mad (of course, it’s only our familiarity with current social structures that obscures the wild, risky madness they represent). So those on The Left shy away from their alternative and instead talk about burning the bondholders, defaulting on the bank debt, revoking the promissory notes, overturning the bank guarantee. Repetition has hollowed out those phrases… they’ve become like marketing slogans for a product you’ll never afford. The other side has their own set of course. They talk about a return to growth, of fiscal responsibility and of being on-track to meet our targets. And they look wistfully into the middle distance and speak in hushed tones of the glorious day when we proudly rejoin the bond markets.

My other theory is less charitable to The Left. The reason they don’t discuss radical alternatives in the media is not because they’re worried about appearing incoherent when forced to shoehorn their plan into soundbite form. It’s because they don’t actually have a radical alternative. See, compared with a hundred years ago, general political discourse has today been narrowed to a tiny segment of the spectrum. The Irish Labour Party… the party of James Connolly and Jim Larkin… is now entirely wedded to the notion of free market capitalism. And they are the “centre left” member of the coalition government. But there’s a sense that even those who critique the government from further left are trapped in that free market capitalist paradigm.

They talk about ending the “casino capitalism” that has helped plunge this country into debt. But they don’t talk about ending “capitalism”. Remove the casino but leave the rest of the edifice standing. It’s reform they want… they don’t want to replace the system with a radical alternative, they just want to tinker with the way it’s running.

All of which makes it impossible for them to be coherent. By aligning themselves with the forces of market capitalism they are forced to accept the internal logic of the markets demanding Ireland sell its future.

Personally, I do have an alternative plan. Unfortunately though, when I describe the plan it sounds risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. I don’t believe it’s any of those things, but decades of free-market indoctrination makes it seem that way from a mainstream perspective.

My plan involves radical reform of the political structures (starting with freeing TDs from party whips and strengthening local government), a wave of nationalisations, the end of a free market in non-renewable resources, the removal of the profit motive from essential industries and services, a radical localisation of those essential industries and services, the introduction of a Universal Living Income coupled with significant tax increases for those who earn more than three times that amount, a rise in corporation tax to bring us close to the European average, the implementation of secondary regional currencies which would exist alongside the euro, the immediate repudiation by the sovereign of all private debt transferred to it, a complete structural reform of NAMA, investment in local infrastructure projects and a far-reaching redefinition of “illegal activity” within the financial and political sectors. I would also radically reform Ireland’s social policies in a number of areas (drug law, marriage equality, etc.) and I’d ensure that Ireland unilaterally embarked on a journey towards a decarbonised and sustainable future… hopeful that others might follow our example.

As I say… risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. Accurate descriptions to those living in a society that has lost its ability to re-imagine itself and therefore abandoned all attempts to do so. Instead we blunder down exactly the same path we’ve been on for the past few decades; a path destined to lead us to disaster. Me? I’d rather take a risk on a different path, even if we don’t have an accurate map of where it might lead. Especially when we know the one we’re on ends with a plunge into the abyss.

* On the subject of the financial crisis – and is there any other subject right now in Ireland? – Sinn Féin qualify as part of The Left.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


20
Jun 2012

The ethics of music downloads

I’ve just read a couple of articles which got me thinking about the ethics of downloading (this one by Emily White attempting to justify her massive music collection – none of which she paid for; and this one by David Lowery in response). It’s a subject I’ve thought about quite a lot over the years… I remember the first incarnation of Napster, and prior to that I can even recall swapping rare tracks person-to-person across the IRC network. So I was there right at the start of digital downloads. Before that, I put together plenty of mix-CDs for friends. I remember, for example, sometime in the 90s putting together a David Byrne compilation CD complete with a fairly lengthy companion ‘zine containing lyrics, facts about the songs and personal observations. It was a proper labour of love. And back even before that, I vividly recall spending hours making the perfect mix-tape… an often lengthy process for the music-obsessed.

And it’s fair to say that over the years I received my share of such mix tapes and CDs. They were an important part of my life. Sharing music with friends was hugely significant to me. Notably however, my circle of friends all had very large record (and later, CD) collections. I can’t speak for others, but in my case music probably represented my single largest financial outlay. Even back in the days when I was working in industry and earning a fair chunk of change, I was probably spending more on music than on rent, or food, or any other single thing.

Home Taping Never Killed MusicIn that respect, the sharing of music that I and my friends engaged in was – in a very real sense – promoting the spending of money on music. When my friend P gave me that C90 of Talking Heads songs back in the mid-80s, there’s no sense in which David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz or Jerry Harrison lost out. Since that day I have bought the band’s entire catalogue three times (first on vinyl, then on CD, then on the digitally remastered CDs). I’ve also bought everything Byrne has released as a solo artist (including all the mail-order only stuff); I’ve bought the Tom Tom Club records; I’ve bought tickets to see Byrne perform live on every European tour he’s done since the early 1990s; I’ve bought a t-shirt at almost all of those gigs; I’ve bought his books; I’ve bought his DVDs.

And all of that was triggered by that first technically-illegal mix-tape. “Home Taping Is Killing Music” indeed!

In fact when I first started downloading music through IRC or Napster or Limewire, it was only to get hold of tracks that couldn’t be purchased from the artist. A live bootleg of David Byrne performing Sympathy for The Devil… an unreleased studio out-take from Bowie’s Low… an early Legendary Pink Dots track from an out-of-print EP only available on long-deleted cassette… a The The b-side that was impossible to track down in physical form (and believe me, I searched… I was one of those slightly mad looking blokes in long black coats who would attend record fairs). Whatever you may feel about the ethics of downloading music for free, in those cases I just don’t see the problem. I’d already bought most (if not all) of the recorded output of those artists – including that 10″ version of ‘The Beat(en) Generation’ in the cardboard box with the postcards and badge. I’d rush down to my local record store on the day of release, in the hope of getting my hands on the red vinyl pressing of a Siouxsie and The Banshees single I would buy on standard black vinyl anyway. Hell I even used to scour those endless lists in small-print in Record Collector magazine and excitedly write a £30 cheque for a Japanese import of an album I already owned because it had a different sleeve and an extra track.

Sad. Sad. Sad.

So yes, when music began to appear for free on the internet I didn’t have a huge ethical issue with grabbing that live bootleg, or this rare b-side. It wasn’t that I felt the artist or record company owed me anything for my years of devotion and financial outlay… I just didn’t think they’d begrudge me (of all people!) the opportunity to get hold of those rare tracks.

Then however, things started to change. Broadband replaced dial-up and suddenly it was possible to grab entire albums for free. Today, a person can type “The Beatles” into a torrent search and download the entire back catalogue in a matter of minutes. And yes, I admit, there was a short period of time when I too found myself caught up in this madness. I’d already paid for about half of Bob Marley’s albums, why not just grab the other half? What could it hurt? And then… well I really like that one track off that one album by that bloke… let’s download his entire recorded output.

And then I thought… hang on a minute. What the hell am I doing? I still don’t see anything wrong with finding that rare deleted single and grabbing it if it’s not available on iTunes – though that’s an increasingly rare occurrence with so much stuff being available from legitimate online stores these days. And I still don’t think sending a compilation CD – or even a copy of some especially great new album – to a friend is a bad thing. It doesn’t happen that often any more, but when it does I honestly see it as an important form of promotion for the artist(s) in question… just like that Talking Heads C90 back in the day. Where possible I try to purchase directly from the artist’s website rather than iTunes of course (no need to give a cut to Apple if you can give it all to the artist) and I still like to browse the few remaining record shops and buy something physical – throwback that I am.

But the notion of downloading entire back catalogues is just wrong. There’s no sense in which that can possibly help the artist. They will never receive any compensation from you for whatever they’ve added to your life. And enough people are doing it now that it’s having a genuinely negative effect on the prospect of many artists. I’m not going to quote numbers or statistics, but I suggest you read David Lowery’s excellent article to set yourself straight if you’re one of those people who believe mass downloading is having no impact on artists.

But Illegal Downloading Still MightBesides, I want to pay for the good stuff because it means the artist is more likely to make more of it. No, I don’t want to pay for the bad stuff… but I don’t even want to listen to that, so why download it? There’s a case to be made for “try before you buy”… just like the long-lamented listening posts in record shops (or even better, the local record store where you knew the guy behind the counter and he’d gladly play whatever record you wanted to hear over the speaker system). But YouTube fulfils that function these days – perhaps to the annoyance of some artists – but there you have it. Want to know whether the new Kate Bush record is a return to form… listen to a couple of tracks on YouTube and then buy the record from her website if you like them (album available as a high bitrate lossless download, or as a lovely crafted package if you’re old-school). There’s no actual need to download the entire album for free just to check it out. If you don’t think you’d like it, then why do that anyway? And if you do think it will enrich your life, doesn’t the artist deserve to be able to make a living?

So yes, I did go through a brief phase of mass downloading. And I’m not proud of it. But ultimately I realised my actions were fundamentally unethical (and in my defence, I’d already paid my dues as far as music-purchasing was concerned, so maybe I can be forgiven my temporary lapse). More worrying though is not my generation – many of whom I suspect could tell very similar stories to mine – no, it’s the new generation of music-lovers who never experienced the genuine joy of buying that slice of wonderfully packaged vinyl and rushing home to be delighted by it. Even the CD didn’t kill that experience (though it was never quite as good). But the digital download? It just doesn’t feel like an “artefact” (because let’s face it, it’s not). As such, it’s difficult to place as much value on it. If limitless quantities of the finest champagne was available in every home on tap, for free, how long before it seemed vaguely worthless?

And that’s what’s happening to music. Even hardcore music fans of the current generation can’t help but hold the art-form in considerably lower esteem than those of us who had no option but to buy it. And who got something physical – something we could feel and pore over – in return for our money. The loss of that tactile experience is, I believe, directly related to the loss of value that seems to have beset the musical output of even the greatest artists. I know I sound terribly old-fashioned when I say that, but I do think it’s true. And no, I don’t know how to solve the problem. But I do feel it is a problem, and it’s one that needs to be solved if we want our artists to continue creating great music.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


21
Apr 2012

Lying politicians (and media complicity)

Yesterday over in the UK, David Cameron gave a speech which contained two blatant lies. Firstly he claimed of the company Rolls Royce that “Half the members of its Board started as apprentices.” In fact, to quote the excellent Channel 4 FactCheck blog

Only one out of the fourteen members of the Rolls-Royce board of directors did an apprenticeship with the company, and that was a sponsored degree rather than a vocational course for a school-leaver.

David Cameron (British Prime Minister)

A lying liar

Cameron also claimed (and prefaced the claim with the immortal words, “I am not making this up”) that the previous Labour government had introduced a GCSE-equivalent course “in Personal Effectiveness which actually involved learning how to fill out a benefit form”. In fairness to Cameron he’s right when he said that he wasn’t making that one up. As the FactCheck blog reveals, he was actually just parroting something that the Daily Mail had made up. Which is par for the course for British politicians of almost every stripe.

Now, what irks me most is not those specific lies. It’s the fact that we have come to accept lies and half-truths from our politicians as though they were the most natural thing in the world. There will be no massive scandal about Cameron’s false claim that the Rolls Royce boardroom is half-filled with erstwhile apprentices who worked their way up from the machine room. Indeed, with the exception of a tiny handful of people who read the Channel 4 FactCheck blog, most people will never know the claim is false.

And tomorrow, or next week, he’ll make a speech with yet more self-serving lies and once again they will be accepted as fact.

Because despite the excellent FactCheck blog, the reality is that the media as a whole does a god-awful job of holding our politicians to account. In a sane world, Cameron’s next speech or press conference would be followed by a dozen questions from the floor asking him why he lied in his previous speech. Why he was content to trot out the vile falsehoods of the Daily Mail as though they were fact. Why, in fact, he was comfortable treating the citizens of his country with such naked contempt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that journalists should be able to identify the lies as they are told. Fact checking takes time. But if they were doing their jobs in an even half-competent manner, they’d hold him to account for the things he says on the next occasion they got to question him. But they don’t. Instead they are actively complicit in those lies… reporting them without ever investigating them.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion